Examples of Systemic Trauma

Racialized Trauma

The Indian Act

Here in Canada the “Indian Act” came into law in 1867. In the book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, author Bob Joseph shares details of the Act that created the colonial system  that continues to traumatize Indigenous peoples today. The Indian Act included things like:

  • Creating reserves
  • Mandating residential schools
  • Restricting First Nations from leaving their reserve without permission from a government official
  • Forbidding First Nations peoples from forming government, or even voting
  • Forbidding First Nations peoples from speaking their language, practicing their religion, or any form of culture–from potlatches to wearing traditional regalia

This is just a sampling of the Indian Act. Basically, the act treated First Nations people as non-human. Over time the act has shifted and changed, but the stage was set in 1867 for an unjust system that oppresses Indigenous peoples. The Truth and Reconciliation movement is working to break down the deeply racist colonizing roots we still experience today. However, in order for any kind of lasting cultural shift to occur, all of society needs to participate in creating change.

Impact of Slavery on the World Today

Similarly, if we consider the roots of slavery in North America, we can become aware of why our society still struggles with systemic racism. Canadians tend to think that Canada wasn’t involved with slavery. However, this is not fully accurate. Canada became a sovereign country in 1867, 33 years after slavery ended within the British Empire, of which Canada was part. . Abolition happened later for the US, and in those years in-between Canada did give safe haven to enslaved people from the US through the Underground Railway. However, slavery was also legal here for 200 years. Enslaved people had no legal rights and were not considered fully human under the law.

Because the slave trade was intrinsic to the development of North America, it has deeply impacted the system of government we know today. Slavery – and later segregation – meant that laws governing our lands elevated the value of white lives over black lives. This problem continues to be systemic, because it is so ingrained in the way laws are written. This is something we still struggle with today.

Patriarchal Systems and Trauma

Sexism, and the oppressively patriarchal nature of Western society are systemic problems that can perpetuate trauma for all genders. For centuries, Western society and culture has favoured the white heterosexual male over anyone else. That has created constant and ongoing opportunity for systemic trauma to affect people outside of that demographic.

Most women in Canada were only allowed to vote after 1916, with Quebec being the last province to allow women to vote in 1940.

Until 1985 (when there was a change to the Indian Act), Indigenous women did not have autonomy of their own status. Before 1985, an Indigenous woman who married someone non-indigenous would lose their status.

We could go on and on, but the point is that there are many deeply entrenched racist and sexist policies that have contributed to systemic issues that continue to affect people today.

Today women and girls are still more likely to experience sexual assault. The #MeToo movement helped to bring awareness to the issue, but we still have a long way to go. Women tend to have more barriers that keep them in poverty, and there is still a wage gap between women and men in the workplace. Today there is still an imbalance of women in leadership positions. Statistics tell us that girls are more likely to have adverse childhood experiences that can result in mental health issues. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women are twice as likely to experience mental health issues as men are. Further, white male-dominated culture creates conditions that increase the possibility for women to experience systemic trauma.

These same systemic conditions have also led to widespread homophobia and transphobia. Many LGBTQ2+ people experience microaggressions, mistreatment, aggression, and violence that can cause trauma.

The War on Drugs and the Opioid Crisis

Consider the opioid crisis we are currently experiencing. There are so many layers of trauma involved in this issue. We will dig into this more in the Substance Use module, but we will touch on it briefly here. Many issues have converged to create the opioid crisis we are dealing with today. The War on Drugs in the 1970s, and the accompanying criminalization of drugs put people into cycles of crime and incarceration with no real view towards – or impact on – eradicating drug use. Incarceration has little impact on misuse rates. Research has since told us that harm reduction principles are much more effective in supporting people struggling with substance use. The criminalization of drugs created a major systemic problem. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) have been disproportionately incarcerated, which has contributed to racialized trauma, and the ongoing trauma of the opioid crisis.

Dislocation, Attachment and Trauma

Perspectives related to trauma and addiction come from two famous doctors who hail from right here in B.C.! Dr. Bruce Alexander (a former professor at Simon Fraser University), and Dr. Gabor Maté (who worked for many years at The Portland Hotel Community in Vancouver) have both made a significant impact in the field of trauma and addictions with their work.

Through his “Rat Park” experiment, that has been replicated many times since, Dr. Alexander theorised a connection between dislocation and addiction. Meaning: when a person loses their sense of belonging and has their culture taken from them, they are more likely to experience addiction later in life. Alexander proposes that connection to others is a key aspect in recovery, and prevention of addiction.

Dr. Gabor Maté shares his perspective that there is a connection between early childhood trauma and addiction in adulthood. For many years he worked in the downtown east side of Vancouver with people struggling with severe addiction who were also experiencing homelessness. He states that during that time he never worked with someone who didn’t have childhood trauma. Though his message is heavy, there is still so much hope in it. Like Alexander, Maté talks about how the need for connection and attachment is essential to recovery. Basically, his work is about how to heal from trauma through attachment and connection to others.

*Note that both Alexander and Maté look at addiction beyond drugs and alcohol. In their work they include all addictive behaviours, such as gambling, shopping, video gaming, sex, internet use–basically any behaviour that becomes compulsive and uncontrolled.

Trauma in the Mental Health System

As we discussed in numerous modules, many people have experienced trauma through the very system that is trying to help them. Qualitatively, things within our mental health system are definitely better than they were in the 60s and 70s, but we still have a long way to go. Many people still have traumatic experiences in hospital settings. Because of the way the Mental Health Act is written and enacted, some people still get taken to a hospital handcuffed in a police car. As you can imagine, these experiences are retraumatizing for people with existing trauma e. Our system is in need of ongoing reforms to be sure; in the meantime, if all people involved with those who are experiencing a mental health crisis were to engage with a trauma-informed lens, that would make a big difference.


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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